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What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth Control And Population Collapse

By Alberto Cox Délano | Think Pieces | July 19, 2022 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Think Pieces | July 19, 2022 |


We are here, once again, because Elon Musk is wrong about something. Again.

We need to talk about demographics. How’s that for a sexy hook? But seriously, all of this, every single backwards step we’ve experienced over the last few weeks, the cruelty of reactionary backlash over the last decade, the callousness with which misogynists have operated online since at least the gamergate era, all of these … well, they all have multiple convergent causes (mostly capitalism), but without fault, they always pass go and collect self-fulfilling anxiety on a single data point: Fertility rate.

The aggregated macro-indicators of a country always hide something. GDP per capita doesn’t tell you income distribution; the Human Development Index might as well be useful to answer the questions “Do they have drinking water and sewage?” and “are they like, starving-starving?”; no one without a PhD. can make heads or tails of the Gini Coefficient, and Transparency International’s corruption rankings might not account for institutional, legalized corruption. More objective indicators like population density don’t account for countries where people concentrate on small clusters or in a few cities; life expectancy doesn’t tell you when and how most people die; education attainment rates tell you little about the quality of said education. Surface area doesn’t tell you about percentages of land fit for human habitation. For what it’s worth, the information hidden in aggregated macro-data is just a function of how it is aggregated, not necessarily a problem with the methodology.

Fertility rates are unlike any of the above. By measuring the number of children a woman will potentially have, it turns the observable reality into a single figure which, in turn, accounts for anecdotal and actual experience. That figure will give you a reasonable approximation to the number of children any woman (or girl) in a given country will have in her lifetime without much in the way of standard deviations because, well, you can only give birth to so many children: You can’t have 20 percent of women having 80 percent of the children. It’s such an effective indicator that it’s almost … tactile.

But fertility rates, like GDP per capita or Literacy Rates, also hide information: They account for the moment in time in which the measurement was made. It hides how much it has changed, the rate of change and how, unlike many other demographic indicators, it can change in no time. Everywhere in the world, those rates are dropping, which is a good thing. You can easily find the past and present figures for fertility rates, from secondary or primary sources, but nevertheless, they are still a source of anxiety for certain people. If the arguments were made in good faith, the cause for anxiety would be because fertility rate, like no other indicator, measures the state of a society in equilibrium: Too high, in all certainty, means that it lags way behind in material development; too low usually means that there are some substantial, deep-seated economic and social conditions that dissuade people from having children. Even then, the equilibrium that is the so-called population replacement rate (2.10 children per woman, at the time of this writing) doesn’t mean a society is working well.

There are many a good reason for actively lowering fertility rates as a global policy. But we need to talk about the people who make the argument in bad faith, because there is a line of thinking here that starts with concern trolling about undeveloped countries and poor people in general and then swiftly rockets all the way to replacement theory.

Over a decade ago (5 years in our internet-time singularity), a video made the rounds in the “Catholic-sphere” about Muslim Europeans eventually outgrowing “Christian” Europeans (they mean white, of course). It made its way into the social media of every single gullible Catholic Boomer out there and even a freaking synod. Probably you are familiar with it, as it was one of the earliest forays of viralized neofascist media on social media. It became popular among Catholics as it was made with a focus on France’s Muslim population (the largest in Western Europe). Now, I don’t have any patience for debunking racist idiots about why they are wrong, so in the case of this video, let Snopes do the talking. Whoever made that video wilfully ignored that fertility rates in most countries with majority-Muslim populations have been falling and are close or below replacement rate, and yes, that includes Saudi Arabia. Same thing with India’s Muslim population, the third largest. Or that the fertility rates among the same countries where most French Muslims originate — that is, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — are among the lowest in all of Africa.

But it gives you an idea of how the impact this single figure can have on people. We are in a weird transitional place when it comes to the size of humanity.

Something happened right after of World War II wiped off around 3 percent of the global population. A revolution in food and medical technologies, global vaccination campaigns led by the UN (they are useful for some things yo), the growing adoption of improved water sanitation, and systemic nutritional public policies led to a constant and exponential population growth almost everywhere, including poor countries, despite an endless succession of post-colonial wars, famines, and neoliberal shills cutting corners by, say, removing fluoride from water because it was “expensive” (true story). People started dying less in their childhood and living longer as never before in the history of mankind. That created pervasive narratives, some originating from actual concern: Bangladesh went through, in quick succession, an Independence War, a genocide, and a famine and yet its population kept growing. Same thing with India and Pakistan. China became the perennial billion-people country and portrayed in the collective unconscious as the country that could just lose millions without flinching. China itself bought into these myths and implemented the disastrous one-child policy. Slowly but surely, perhaps because they were just being born into nationhood, Africa’s population grew. Oh, and we ended up with hundreds of millions of Boomers.

But at the same time, the pill came around. At last, there was a simple, almost 100 percent effective way for women to decide how many children they wanted to have, one that didn’t depend on how a guy felt about condoms or pulling out. Well, in theory; it took a while for it to be prescribed to single women or without the authorization of husbands in many parts of the world. Even in their early generations, when they were hormonal bombs, the pill changed everything. Unlike any of the other major revolutionary technologies of the 20th Century, can you actually say that there have been any downsides to oral contraceptives? Or to put it another way, in terms of the big picture, is there even a way that the pill can be misused? It can’t, because the pill is a technology, but also a covenant between it and women: side-effects or wrong prescriptions aside, it releases them from being just a baby-making creature.

The pill only has a negative impact for the people who never wanted the former in the first place.

Of course, birth control methods have been around for as long as humans realized that other thing that comes from a penis is what makes babies. Famously, the Romans drove a plant with contraceptive properties into extinction, proving that Italians don’t need to go to horny jail; Italy is the horny jail. But the pill and all its descendants made it safe, certain, and easy. As all statistics seem to show, people ate it up, pun intended, regardless of cultural background or religion.

And yet, the myth of overpopulation persists. It has been around since a certain Malthus back in the late 18th Century did some … simplistic maths at best. The most persistent bad ideas are the ones that appeal to basic anxieties, the Malthusian catastrophe doesn’t so much point to our own fear of survival (there are plenty of other things to shake that one into action), but to our fear of not being able to provide for our descendants, which throughout human history, prehistory and our evolutionary ancestors, has been the actual reality.

In its current form, Malthusianism is about environmental degradation and overconsumption. You might actually extract a good, sensible argument in favor of population planning out of that: At the rate we are currently using up the Earth, imagine how bad things would be if the population were to double or, as most projections call it, increased by about 50%. That is, of course, because we are thinking from the perspective of developed countries, so embedded into their cultures of consumption that they seem to think they are a basic human right. That gut-level fear has always been what happens if the Indians, Nigerians, Chinese and Peruvians start consuming the way we in the Global North do. Again, there is a small sliver of a good argument there, but it’s an argument that does a piss-poor job of hiding its failed starting point.

Those people might be right that yes, a sustained rate of population growth is unsustainable, and yes, poor and developing countries can be dragged down by a high fertility rate, but they forget the actual reasons why: Because it’s about women’s liberation. Fertility rates, as I mentioned before, give you a good idea of the average family size. A family’s size will tell you a lot about family dynamics and the role of women within their families. When you contrast it with average family incomes, the picture becomes complete. Yes, Angelina Jolie can be a mother to six and be Angelina Jolie, but that’s because she’s Angelina Jolie and has the income of an Angelina Jolie. Every single zero you remove from that income figure, the more children become an anchor on women.

That’s why I think the pill is the Greatest Invention of the 20th Century. Certainly, inventions such as penicillin and the plane also paved the way for its invention and its worldwide reach, but we still underestimate how it changed human life. Quick reminder that women’s liberation is also men’s liberation and gender liberation. Many of the studies on how fertility rates have dropped mention how women’s empowerment and growing access to education has contributed to it. I would say there is a good argument for a chicken-or-egg situation here: Does contraception free women to make their way into further and further education or does education help women become aware of the opportunities afforded by contraception?

Of course, the anwer is both, a virtuous cycle. Many of those same studies mention the cultural barriers in countries where contraception is yet to take off, perpetuating the false notion that undeveloped countries are essentially more patriarchal at the expense of pragmatism. And wouldn’t you know it, they all happen to be African and/or majority Muslim countries. Yet they forget how successful contraceptives have been in the very patriarchal, very isolated, and very Catholic Latin American countries.

Except people also forget that contraception takes off in no time whenever it is made available. Delivering contraception methods and education requires infrastructure in undeveloped countries, furthering the virtuous cycle. Contraception takes hold so quickly that its effects usually take less than a generation to be observed; that was the case in Latin America, and that was the case in Iran and South Asia.

The pill showed a reality about us humans that was, perhaps, unexpected: If given the choice, the vast majority of us don’t want to have that many children. Women being the bearers more so, but it’s as Universal as it gets. Whether you are a poor person in a wealthy country or middle class in a poor one, a number somewhere between two and no more than three children is the optimal, and that’s not counting how expensive raising a child is. Because parents realize that it gives them and their children more chances. That’s a sobering thought for many generations still alive today, having grown in large families and raised by abnegated mothers. The pill showed them that it didn’t need to be that way.

But there is still more to be said about our current trajectory of population growth, the misguided anxieties about it and what we are really talking about. Because this is also a conversation about racism, about the value of Black and Brown lives, in particular about Africa, and about what it means to bring a child into this world right now. See you in Part II.

This article is not a long-winded way for Alberto Cox to announce he is about to become a breeder. He’s barely 30…ish goddammit. He still needs to finish his Graduate studies to become employable and he has no social life.